On March 13, Diana Berrent exhibited her first symptoms of novel coronavirus. But she is one of the lucky ones. Though she experienced the fevers and cough and gastrointestinal issues (losing 12 pounds), she never had to go to the hospital and she still maintained a decent amount of energy.
It was while Berrent was sick and quarantined in her bedroom, that she conceived of Survivor Corps. Intended to be a service organization (a la the Peace Corps), in reality, it has become a massive resource network for survivors of and those sick with coronavirus—or anyone who wants to understand more. One of those people was six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein. Since recovering from COVID-19 he had been trying to find a way to donate his plasma. On May 13, Burstein and Berrent made side-by-side appointments to donate at the New York Blood Center.
But Survivor Corps goes beyond donation information.
The Facebook group is 45,000-people large and growing. It serves as an information hub, community (folks sharing stories and asking questions about symptoms other COVID-19-positive people have experienced), and programming host. Events include a Facebook Live Q&A on “Anxiety in the Time of COVID” with Dr. Julia Samton, a town hall with New York City Councilman Mark Levine, and an hour-long presentation about the facts of antibody testing.
Survivor Corps’ Facebook remains open to the public, regardless of whether you have had COVID-19. “[Scientific and medical professionals] are looking also to track healthy people and monitor their health through your Fitbit or your Apple watch,” Berrent says. “There are all kinds of ways for people to participate and to support the scientific efforts.”
In addition, the Survivor Corps website keeps tabs on registries, studies, and trials—national and by state—of testing locations, antibody testing locations, convalescent plasma donation locations, and national studies and clinic trials. Survivor Corps lists every single resource, from non-profit hospital to for-profit biotech companies. Self-described as agnostic, Berrent says, “we are supporting every academic, scientific and medical effort underway to find a cure or to answer the questions that remain mysteries about this virus.”
Visitors enter their zip code and find the donation site nearest them—as well as the qualifications to donate at that site, as it is not yet nationally standardized.
Burstein knew that in his area “it was 14 days after symptoms and survival that I could donate,” he says. All plasma is tested for antibodies after donation to ensure safety in transfusions and efficacy in research. Blood centers do not want people to start using them as antibody testing sites, hence the lack of testing prior to donation. Volunteers like Burstein have been invaluable.
“Convalescent plasma could really be the most effective stop gap measure until we have a globally available vaccine,” says Berrent. Convalescent plasma (plasma—blood’s liquid component—removed from the blood of a person who has recovered from a disease) can be transfused directly to a critically ill patient as treatment, it can be used by biotech companies to help create products that will save lives, it can be sent to research universities like Johns Hopkins and Columbia to study properties of the disease and potential treatments. What’s more, the human body regenerates plasma—like any other blood donation—so it’s entirely safe to donate. Berrent has done so five times to date.
Though not a medical professional (in fact, she is a photographer), Berrent has enlisted an impressive scientific advisory board that includes: Dr. Anil Bagri, VP Research and Pre-Clinical Development at Cerus Corporation; Dr. Wendy Chung, Chief of the Division of Clinical Genetics and Department of Pediatrics, and Medical Director of Columbia Genetic Counselling Graduate Program and Columbia University Medical Center; Dr. Eldad Hod, Associate Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center; Dr. Dara Kass, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center; Dr. Natalie Lambert, Associate Professor of Department of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine; Dr. Julia Samton, Neurology, Psychiatry and Mindfulness at Manhattan Neuropsychiatric Clinic; and Dr. Jordan Shlain, founder of Private Medical Network and Chairman of HealthLoop Inc.
As a survivor—and the wife of a survivor and mother of two survivors—Berrent wants to spread the knowledge. “We are a campaign of awareness,” she says.
“Our goal is to support the scientific community in every way possible—that extends to the epidemiologist, the social scientists who are using this data to try to figure out how we can open safely so that it's not at the cost of life,” she continues. “We have science at our disposal.”